Written by Michael Chan.
The short 90-minute Hong Kong-Taipei flight is one of busiest routes in the world. The route reflects close economic ties – Taiwan is Hong Kong’s third largest trade partner and a top destination for Hong Kong tourists. It was in this tourism context of February 2018 that Hong Kong man Chan Tong-kai murdered his girlfriend Poon Hiu-wing while they were vacationing in Taiwan. Little did people know at the time that this isolated incident, and the Hong Kong Chief Executive Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s subsequent efforts to fast-track the Extradition Law through Hong Kong’s Legislature in the face of public opposition, would ultimately cascade and morph into a prolonged political and social crisis. Underlying many citizen grievances were distrust and fear of the Hong Kong government’s motives, as the law could have facilitated the extradition of citizens to mainland China for trial. Citizens were also angry that normal legislative procedures for debating the law were bypassed and dissenting voices were ignored. What started as a protest against a government policy has since reignited the movement for greater democracy and universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Indeed, the unprecedented levels of police and protester violence have been a shock to many in a city state that has long prided itself on the “rule of law” as one of its core values.
The months-long protests have generated much interest and sympathy from Taiwan’s citizens. Prominent pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong have gone to Taiwan to appeal for assistance and support, and commentators have noted that the protests may have altered the dynamics of Taiwan’s 2020 election. This essay, however, looks at Taiwan from a Hong Kong perspective and how the ‘idea’ of Taiwan has been appropriated as symbols of resistance against the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.
Taiwan has long been a beacon for aspiration among those in Hong Kong who seek greater democratisation. Pro-democracy supporters see in Taiwan a fully developed Asian democracy that practices the democratic ideals and values for which they are fighting: freedom of speech, a free press, a vibrant civil society, and universal suffrage. It serves as an aspiration and a model of what Hong Kong may one day become. Moreover, they see an independent and autonomous country that has thrived in the face of China’s hegemonic power and attempts to internationally isolate Taiwan.
These aspirations have manifested into symbols of resistance in the current protests. In particular, the Taiwanese flag has been quite prominently displayed and carried by protesters during marches and rallies against the extradition law. The flag has also been plastered on the various Lennon Walls that have sprouted throughout Hong Kong. On 10 October, multiple rallies were held with people waving Taiwanese flags to ‘celebrate’ Double Ten Day and the 108th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China. Even on my own campus, printed Taiwanese flags, both in colour and in black and white, can be seen among other protest posters that have appeared in many buildings. It is not known whether these posters were put up by local or exchange students from Taiwan, but the prominent use of the flag symbolises the democratic aspirations of the protesters, as well as both provocation and repudiation of China. These displays occurred at a time when the Taiwanese flag emoji was removed in the latest Apple iOS update for Hong Kong users, a move that many attributed to pressure from the Chinese authorities. One has to wonder how students from mainland China, which comprised 6% of total enrolled students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2003 and up to 15% in 2015, felt about the symbols displayed throughout the campus.
There are, however, no signs that the Hong Kong government will address protester demands for democracy, since any concession would be a tacit acknowledgement that violence can sway policy. The increasingly violent protests also serve the narrative of the Chinese government that more stringent laws are needed to control Hong Kong, which may ultimately further erode the autonomy and freedoms of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
According to the latest national survey from the Hong Kong Institute of Asia Pacific Studies released in September, 42.3% of respondents were considering emigration or are in the process of emigration procedures. While 22.6% of respondents in the survey had yet to decide their destination, Taiwan was the third most popular choice (12.1%) after Canada (17.5%) and Australia (13.8%), two countries with large Hong Kong diasporas. The attraction of Taiwan can be attributed to its close proximity, cultural familiarity, lower costs of living, and its democratic freedoms. Of course, its proximity is also a reason why some protesters have sought refuge in Taiwan. Although whether they will be given refugee status by the Taiwanese government is still unknown.
Meanwhile, the man who set everything in motion, Chan Tong-kai, was released in October following 19 months in custody for money laundering (he used his dead girlfriend’s bank cards to withdraw money). Upon his release he was contrite and expressed his willingness to surrender to the Taiwan authorities. Regardless of his eventual fate, he will forever be known as the unintended catalyst for one of the biggest social upheavals in Hong Kong since its return to China.
Michael Chan is an Associate Professor at the School of Journalism & Communication, Chinese University of Hong Kong. This article is a part of the special issue on the Hong Kong protests and their impact on Taiwan.